How Audra McDonald and Alan Cumming Are Helping Broadway Go Green

News   How Audra McDonald and Alan Cumming Are Helping Broadway Go Green
 
Broadway marquees are one of the most recognizable symbols of New York theatre that there is. People look up at them every day without thinking. Little do they know that they’re also gazing upon the most potent symbol of the theatre’s increasing drive toward becoming a Green industry.

Seven years ago, all the bulbs that Broadway’s many marquees ablaze were changed, from the usual type to a more energy-efficient items. This change has saved 800 tons of carbon emissions every year since then.

Theatre people “are afraid of a few things when it comes to greening,” said Charlie Deull. “First is they’re afraid they’re going to have to compromise their artistic quality. Second, they’re afraid it’s going to cost more money.” Neither supposition is true, he said. Deull is the co-chair of the Broadway Green Alliance, whose function is to educate, motivate and inspire the theatre community to implement environmentally friendlier practices.

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Photo by Monica Simoes

“There’s a kind of very basic, important principal behind the work, which is climate change and environmental problems are not the result of one big, bad thing that someone out there is doing,” said Deull. (Susan Sampliner is the other co-chair.) “It’s rather the cumulative effect of billions of small actions. We emphasize that you start where you are. Whatever you’re doing today, do something a bit better the next day.”

In other words, a lot of little thing add up to a larger impact. Those little things include installing a filtered water system in a theatre and the getting cast members of a show to use refillable water bottles, rather than buy a new bottle of water every time they arrive at the theatre. Another easy innovation is putting dressing-room lights on motion-sensor dimmers.

The Broadway Green Alliance was formed in 2008, when an industry meeting convened by the Broadway League, the trade group of theatre owners and producers, resulted in the suggestion that an ad-hoc committee be formed to look into environmental matters. At the meeting, people talked about all the sorts of things they had already been doing independently to make their theatres and productions more environmentally friendly, both in New York and on the road. “The committee was formed to provide information, support and inspiration to coordinate the different activities that people were already engaged in or could be engaged in,” said Deull.

The Alliance does not strong-arm anybody into action. “It’s not a nagging thing and trying to get people to go green,” said Rebekah Sale, who was hired three years ago as the Alliance’s coordinator. “It’s explaining all the little things that people can do.” Sale was peculiarly suited for her unique position. Prior to working for Jujamcyn Theatre, the theatre owners and producers, she was employed by The New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), New York State's largest student-directed research and advocacy organization, who, among many concerns, fights for environmental protection.

Not that much nagging is needed to get theatre people to listen to the Alliance. At the first rehearsal of every Broadway show, someone is asked to be the troupe’s “Green Captain” — that is, a person who gently polices everyone else on the show’s environmental policies.

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald Photo by ABC

“The other day Equity said they asked for a volunteer at Fun Home and four people jumped up,” told Sale. Other past Green Captain have included stars like Bryan Cranston, Audra McDonald and Alan Cumming.

Sometimes, getting people to sign on for specific efforts take a little convincing. One example: the adoption of rechargeable batteries by shows’ sound departments. “People said for years, there’s no way you could do that, it’s critical to have a fresh battery,” said Sale. “And it was good old Wicked who boldly tried that and found that it works. And they went from using 15,000 batteries a year to using 96 rechargeables.”

Going green presents specific challenges to the theatre simply because, unlike more industries, it never stays put. It is always changing, and the players vary from show to show.

“The nature of what we do in the theatre is special,” explained Deull. “Unlike a building or university that is always doing the same thing, the life of a theatre changes with the show that’s in it. Long-running shows, short-running shows, plays, musicals — all have different characteristics, a different team is assembles for each new production. There’s not the same kind of continuity as there is in most fields.”

Still, most shows have succeeded handsomely. And those who do very well get recognized. The Alliance recently gave a Green Broadway Award to Jujamcyn Theatre (who were the first to change their marquee bulbs) for outstanding achievement. Duell hastened to point out, however, that the Nederlanders and Shuberts and Disney and Lincoln Center Theater have all done a lot of good things as well. “All 40 venues have made significant progress,” he said.

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Photo by Monica Simoes

“Overall, the theatre community has really embraced this,” said Sale. “Artists are very good at this.”

OK, but what about theatregoers? Is there anything they can do to contribute?

Sale suggested recycling Playbills and taking public transportation to shows. Other than that, “it’s more about inspiring them: if we can do this on Broadway, you can do this at home.”

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